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Gut feeling: the attraction development factor that drives executive board room members crazy

Previously posted on Blooloop

Developing new attractions requires many difficult decisions and, in boardrooms, these often come together in spreadsheets. But while these spreadsheets are an important part of the mix in attraction development, there is one factor which might be more important to drive success. And it is this attraction development factor which drives many executive board room members crazy: the gut feeling.

The Cambridge dictionary defines gut feeling as: “a strong belief about someone or something that cannot completely be explained and does not have to be decided by reasoning.”

Cambridge Dictionary definition gut feeling

Reading this definition, it is no wonder that the gut feeling scares many executive decision-makers involved in attraction development! This is not something you like to hear when you are deciding about investing millions of euros or dollars. But why is this gut feeling so important in creating successful attractions? Furthermore, is Cambridge’s statement that the “gut feeling cannot completely be explained” really true?

Connecting with the guest

So, if gut feeling is so important in developing a successful attraction, we could assume that the best attractions in the world will be built based on gut feeling, right? Let’s first find the best attractions in the world. Some names feature on most lists, including names like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Tower of Terror (pictured, top).

All these attractions are unique, taking the guests out of their daily life and connecting them with another world. A critical person reading this article immediately will say, yes but most of them are based on well-known IPs. That’s totally true. But don’t forget that there are many other IP-based attractions that will never make this list as they are not making the right connection with the guest.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey experience concept attractions
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Universal

But what has “making the right connection with your guest” to do with gut feeling? First, let’s look at which other factors make this connection.

At every industry conference, you hear that the best attractions and parks connect with the guests when they have the right theming, the right attraction mix, great staff, surprising elements, personalisation, the right budget and engaging storytelling. Most design studios include those words in their pitches. Yet only a few are able to come up with attractions, areas, experiences, museums or parks that really connect.

So, this is exactly where the gut feeling becomes important in developing attractions. It’s about taking that extra step from the ordinary path to create something unique that guests emotionally connect with. The extra step you cannot define, but you feel it is necessary to take.

Examples of gut-feeling attraction development projects

Let’s find some examples.

What if you build a show based on the story from the 17th century, in an indoor theatre, with real horses, many actors, great sound & light and enormous sets? Ok, sounds cool, but guests might have seen this before. But what if, at the moment supreme, the giant stage, in a way the audience will not recognise, slowly begins to take on a small film of water, building up to an episode of a flooded stage where horses dance in the water, creating a dramatic combination of splashing water, lighting, music, horses and actors.

The water effect is not necessary for the story, but this scene, with beautifully lit horses surrounded by mind-blowing theatricals sets, creates a water ballet that might get your guests so emotional, that they get tears in their eyes and will never forget this moment (Yes, I was one of the audience members with tears in my eyes). It was a courageous decision by Puy du Fou to build such a scene in their Mousquetaire de Richelieu show.

It would have been a decision that hugely affected their budget, without anyone’s spreadsheets being able to explain why they had to do it. It’s a gut-feeling decision. A gut feeling that tells you this will emotionally connect to the guests; they will never forget and tell their friends about it. And this is exactly why Puy du Fou is so popular.

“I think it can work, and it will be cool”

A great other example was the decision 20 years ago to build the Spiderman attraction at Universal Islands of Adventure. Imagine the conversation: “Let’s have guests travel in 4D in moving vehicles through movie sets of Spiderman and this is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop. Oh yeah, and we’re not even sure if what we envision is technically feasible, but we think we can make it work.”

The gut feeling said “I think it can work, and it will be cool” and the decision was made to build the attraction. 20 years later, it is still in the top three best attractions in the world.

universal adventures of spiderman gut feeling in attractions
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Universal

But using your gut feeling is important on a smaller scale also. Spending more detail on theming or creating a slightly more expensive music score, assuming that this will create a more emotional feeling in your spatial storytelling attraction, is absolutely a gut-feeling decision that you can’t explain. It is not decided by clear reasoning, but if done right, will create this extra emotional connection with the guest.

What do the academics say?

So…now we simply follow our gut feeling, and we will be successful? Unfortunately, it is not that easy. Luckily more people were wondering about the importance of gut feeling and have done some research on it.

This research shows that gut feeling helps us in making difficult decisions where many details come together. In those cases, it appears that decisions based on gut feelings are often more accurate. At the start of this article, I mentioned that when creating a new attraction, many different decisions need to be made. This might explain why using the gut feeling works in developing attractions.

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California and at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, transports guests to Black Spire Outpost, a village on the planet of Batuu. Guests will discover two signature attractions – Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. (Richard Harbaugh/Disney Parks) gut feeling in attractions
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Disney

However, another academic study made something else very important clear. People with experience in the subject matter made a more accurate decision based on their gut feeling, compared to people that were not experts. Reflecting this back to the attractions industry we can conclude that when basing your decision on a gut feeling, you better have experience in the attractions industry. Or, at the very least, include some experts in the process.

Gut feeling is important

Attraction development requires many complex decisions, also at executive level. Often, success is defined by how well your attraction connects with the guests on an emotional level. This element is difficult to capture in spreadsheets, so we can see how gut feeling is important when developing attractions.

But of course, don’t base your decisions on gut feeling only! Balance the gut feeling with your business thinking and excel sheets and don’t hesitate to seek advice from experts. As the above dictionary description said: “the gut feeling cannot completely be explained”. Therefore, we must use it carefully in the development of successful attractions.

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